Every strength has a flip side, as my mother always says. The same communication trait that makes it easy for me to write volumes of words also means that, at times, I talk an awful lot. Someone driven to excel may also drive everyone around them nuts with their singular focus. A tendency to take bold risks can lead to astounding success ... or reckless disaster. And according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, that interconnected relationship between strength and weakness may exist in the field of creativity, as well--in the rather scary form of an actual genetic link between high levels of creativity and mental illness.
The idea that highly creative people have more than their share of depression, alcoholism, and other psychological issues or struggles is not new, and anecdotal examples are legion. Van Gogh cut off his ear and suffered depressing visions before finally committing suicide. The writer David Foster Wallace (who gave such a sharp, witty, irreverent and highly memorable commencement address to Kenyon College graduates in 2005 that the Wall Street Journal even saw fit to reprint it) committed suicide last year at the age of 46. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other writers, artists, and creative individuals have also taken their own lives. And that doesn't even get into the much larger group who created wonderful works of art and brilliance even as they battled serious and debilitating depression or other problems.
There are also numerous examples of more technically-inclined geniuses who have struggled with demons of madness. A new graphic novel/comic book called Logicomix delves into the world of the real-life mathematicians who relentlessly pursued a quest for logical certainty in mathematics throughout the 20th century. (A New York Times review of it can be found here.) One of the book's themes, aside from the pursuit of logical perfection, is the mathematicians' struggles to ward off mental illness. One of the logicians, Bertrand Russell, apparently claimed that it was only his love of mathematics that saved him from suicide--although two of his children developed schizophrenia and killed themselves. Another logician, Georg Cantor, died in an insane asylum, and a third, Kurt Godel, became so paranoid about being poisoned that he starved himself to death.
What causes these brilliant, creative minds to fall into such dark places? Does obsession with an idea--a common trait in those driven to pursue its exploration and expression, whether in words or formulas--somehow disconnect us with an important perspective or grounding that a more balanced focus provides? Or are brilliantly artistic or creative people actually predisposed to mental illness?
Possibly the latter, according to just-published research conducted by Hungarian psychiatrist Szabolcs Keri. (You can access the Psychological Science article here, although there's a charge to view it.) In order to explore a possible genetic link between creativity and psychosis, Keri focused his research on the T/T variant of the Neuregulin 1 gene. Neuregulin 1 plays a role in a variety of brain processes, including development and strengthening communication between neurons. But the T/T variant of the gene has also been associated with a greater risk for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Keri's research study was admittedly limited. He interviewed 128 study participants, all of whom had "high intellectual and academic performance." The group was divided by genotypes (variants) into three groups: T/T, C/T, and C/C. Keri found no difference in the groups on the basis of gender or IQ. But he found a distinct difference when it came to scores on creativity tests. The T/T group scored significantly higher in terms of creativity; almost twice as high as the C/C group in some categories.
Why would the T/T group score so much higher on creativity? It may be that the "reduced cognitive inhibition" associated with that variant allows for more creative mental wanderings in more ways than one. A terrific imagination can also lead to terrific nightmares. But what I found particularly interesting was Keri's thought on why the species would retain a gene variant that caused such big problems. According to Darwin, after all, a gene variant that led to debilitating disorders should die out. And yet, the T/T gene variant persists.
"Why are genetic polymorphisms related to severe mental disorders retained in the gene pool of a population?" Keri asked. "A possible answer is that these genetic variations may have a positive impact on psychological function."
The sword, in other words, might have two sides. Creativity is good for advancing the species, even if it sometimes leads to madness. That kind of evolutionary trade-off also doesn't seem to be unique to the neuregulin 1 gene. Research published this past June by John McDonald, chair of the Biology department at Georgia Tech and chief research scientist at the Ovarian Cancer Institute, raised the possibility that the same characteristic that allowed human brains to develop so much bigger and faster than other primates may also be the reason human cells are more susceptible to cancer.
"The results from our analysis suggest that humans aren't as efficient as chimpanzees in carrying out programmed cell death. We believe this difference may have evolved as a way to increase brain size and associated cognitive ability in humans, but the cost could be an increased propensity for cancer," McDonald was quoted as saying.
In a ideal world, the strengths could be separated from the weaknesses, and a perfect species could evolve. But the same law of unintended consequences that plagues so many advances we make, from increased longevity leading to overpopulation problems and antibiotics creating super-resistant bacteria to computer-controlled systems becoming more vulnerable to viruses and hackers ... may be just a continuation of a dichotomy that's been playing out in our DNA for centuries. Our strengths create potential vulnerabilities. There is a dark side to The Force.
A military person would call this phenomenon a "reverse salient." A practictioner of Taoism would say it's the balance of yin and yang. My mother would simply say it's the way of the world. But if these researchers' hypotheses are correct, it means that growth and creativity are important enough to the species that nature has decided they're worth even the ravages of cancer and mental illness to preserve. And that, itself, is a thought worth pondering.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.